In Memoriam: Denise Gess

It is with great sadness that we report that our friend and long-time Philadelphia Stories board member, Denise Gess, passed away on August 22.

If you were writing Denise Gess as a character in a story, you would have to grapple with extremes, wrestle with contradictions. Such a marvelous alluring character! You might have trouble maintaining any kind of authorial distance. You might have trouble making her convincing.

First clue to her character, her looks:  Slender as a ballerina; strong as a python. Even past the half-century mark  (such a paltry amount of time, it now seems), Denise could slip into her Size 2 skinny jeans, pointy-toed high heels, her sunglasses, and demand attention by just walking into the room. ("Smokin’!" one Rowan grad student declared about her.) Dark brown hair, smart and fierce brown eyes, a generous mouth, a sodium vapor smile, a low rumbling laugh (a sleek train speeding from a well-lit tunnel) that came easily and often, promised to go on forever. Who couldn’t pay attention? 

Denise had silky olive skin, a gift from her Sicilian ancestors, and she had a gorgeous clavicle, a creamy, unlined neck and throat. She worried that the part of her body she liked best would be forever scarred when the docs had to surgically insert a titanium catheter right there at the breast bone for the chemo, but she ended up loving the port, which rescued her from the puncture wounds of multiple IVs, the purple stains on her wrists and forearms after her first treatments.

Denise Gess, novelist, essayist, literary critic, a skilled and passionate writer in many genres, an editor of this magazine, a tenured associate professor at Rowan University. A list of accomplishments too long to list in this small space. Denise considered herself a Philadelphia writer — a significant distinction since Philadelphia was not the city of her birth, but her chosen home, crucial, she once told me, to her wellbeing. She loved it. She could not live elsewhere. She’d have withered in the ‘burbs. She knew; she’d tried it, she’d gotten out and did not go back.

Passionate, wise, intelligent, optimistic, witty, vivacious – qualities throughout Denise’s life that fought to claim dominance, but only succeeded in a rare synergistic creation, a uniquely engaged and energetic  writer, teacher, woman. She was self-made, an anomaly in her close-knit family. She began her work life as a nurse, maintained until the end her lifelong fascination with and understanding of all things medical.

Denise was a voracious reader, a hungry learner, an astute identifier of talent, and a tireless promoter of others’ work when she loved it, believed in it – her students and her writer friends. She once told me, however, that she hands-down loved being a mother even more than being a writer, could not have endured the rejections and frustrations of the literary life without the joys and satisfactions of motherhood, without her daughter to come home to.
Last September – Denise lived exactly one year after her diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer – I was with Denise for her last radiation treatment at HUP. The radiation targeted lesions on her brain, and for it, she’d been fitted with a custom radiation mask, a horrifying things of plastic and webbing to protect her face and neck from the killer rays pointed on those lesions. Afterward, she asked if she could keep it, and of course she could. It wouldn’t do anyone else any good. That day, for lunch, she managed to down an egg and an English muffin. Then we went upstairs to the lady’s cancer boutique to buy wigs since she’d soon be bald. Tucked beneath her arm was the odd sculpture, her radiation mask. Wall art, she told anyone who asked, and one or two who didn’t. Everybody laughed, most of all Denise. The frightening mask was for her a talisman of what she could endure, what she would do for another shot at life.

Denise Gess, a woman of hemispheric contradictions —  a bone-thin foodie with the spirit of a shaman and the sharp, shiny, ever-working mind of an engineer, the exotic looks of an actress. A tireless toiler in the fields of literary writing, a well-published, though rarely applauded, writer. Yes, she loved applause, but understood that it didn’t really matter. Not to her, anyway. She loved the writing process, loved writing, and knew that in the end, it was the writing itself, not the fame or glory it might garner, that mattered. She revered written language, and lived to put words down on the page, the sentences stretching out, one after the other, in an endless unbroken chain. Those of us who love her must light candles now in hope that her copious, yet-to-be-published work will find its way to print or cyberspace, so that we, and others, will be enriched by it.

Denise, darling friend and colleague, oh, writerly writer, you, you will not be missed, because you are here and will abide here, the words you spoke, and those you’ve written, woven deeply into the fabric of my life and the lives of all countless others you have touched.

Julia MacDonnell Chang, essay editor of Philadelphia Stories, teaches in the Writing Arts Program at Rowan University. She is a novelist, short story writer, journalist, essayist and book reviewer with graduate degrees in journalism from Columbia University, and one in creative writing from Temple University. 

Denise’s essay on writing essays can be found here, and her terrific essay, Not Tony and Tina, can be found here.


In lieu of flowers, Denise’s family requests donations to the National Lung Cancer Partnership at or to the Wissahickon Hospice, 150 Monument Rd., Suite 300, Bala Cynwyd, PA.

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